Tina, a black woman from Milwaukee, was on a road trip with her eldest son when she had an unpleasant encounter with the police of a sort that’s all too common.
After stopping to fuel up the car, she realized that she hadn’t gotten the correct change from the station attendant. The attendant angrily disagreed.
“I said, “Let’s not argue with the man. Let’s go get the police,” Tina, whose name has been changed to protect her confidentiality, told me. ”When the police came, instead of him talking to me like I’m talking to you — respectfully — he got up in my face and told me to ‘shut up.’” When Tina told the police officer that he shouldn’t address her that way, he arrested Tina and her son.
The result seems drastic. But after hundreds of conversations in communities across the country that I conducted for my research on policing in America, I’ve learned that such testimonies are a common experience for black Americans, no matter the locality. I am a political scientist who studies how Americans understand government through their direct experience of it, which, for many, is interacting with the police. The gulf between how black America and white America experience the police is vast.
Many other Americans are waking up to the reality that white people have the power to turn minor disputes, or their own anxiety, into interventions by the police (which is hardly news in the black community). Such incidents keep making news, including a white student at Yale calling police officers on a black student who had nodded off in a common area and a white woman in Seattle calling the police on a black family barbecuing in a part of a park that allowed barbecuing. (Three years ago at Yale, a campus police officer pulled a gun on a black student — the son of a prominent New York Times columnist — who was casually walking through campus.)
Many people are rightly questioning why black people going about their business are aggressively policed for selling loose cigarettes, barbecuing, sipping a latte, and simply existing in public spaces.
Discussing how white Americans rely on the police must start with how black Americans experience law enforcement
Let’s start by discussing what happens when black Americans call on the police for protection. First, police take longer to come to their communities — and may not come at all. In Chicago, for example, one study found that the average time to arrival for calls to police in nonwhite neighborhoods was twice as long as in predominantly white neighborhoods. One woman told me, after waiting for the police to arrive as a 15-year-old girl in her neighborhood lay dying: “They don’t come fast. They give you time to die.”
Nonwhite people who try to enlist law enforcement for help are more likely than whites to themselves come under suspicion. These voluntary callers may find themselves getting searched, detained, or removed from the premises.
In research for my last book, for example, my co-author Amy Lerman and I interviewed a woman named Tanya (name changed to protect her confidentiality) who called police after a fight with her boyfriend escalated and she wanted him to be removed. When the police arrived, they claimed they smelled marijuana, accused Tanya of hiding drugs, and pushed for her consent to search her house. Her voice wobbling, she recalled one officer claiming that he could “take my child unless I cooperate, making threats like that. … I had called them, but they came to harass me.”
Black women, in particular, who call the police to report domestic violence face eviction by landlords based on “nuisance” ordinance. Such ordinances were designed, in theory, so that landlords can weed out people who call the police too often for frivolous reasons. In practice, they often penalize black women for seeking protection from abusers if they have the misfortune of needing to call more than once or twice.
Finally, things can, as one of our research subjects put it, “go left” very quickly. Black Americans are more likely to be seen as defiant if they ask questions of the police, are reluctant to furnish their identification, or ask the police to leave.
Thus, calling the police if you are black can often be useless and slow, and at worst is outright dangerous.
White people experience law enforcement as helpful. It leads to more calls.
Whites calling the police have an altogether different experience. They do not endure long response times, treatment that negates their victimization, or the slide from victim to suspect in the eyes of the police. They may even gain a sense of personal efficacy in seeing the state perform its basic function of protecting them. As Charles Epp and his colleagues wrote in their book Pulled Over, which grew out of a large representative survey analysis of white and black drivers, even when whites have involuntary contact with police, they overwhelmingly experience the police as helpful, benevolent, fair, and efficient problem solvers.
This mismatch in experience equates to powerful incentives for people of one racial group to call the police on others who could be seen as breaching “white space.” It’s also a powerful disincentive for black people to call the police in almost any situation except when their lives depend on it.
Most white Americans have little doubt about the distorted responsiveness likely to occur when they call the police on black people. They know, without having read the scores of studies on the subject, that whites are seen as more law-abiding by officers of the state, and that blackness itself is construed as suspicious and threatening. (“Nothing in the world is easier in the United States than to accuse a black man of crime,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote bluntly, many decades before the Yale incident.) The odds are not in black people’s favor if they contest police requests for ID or submission, as the examples of Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and too many other Americans attest.
The breezy deployment of police by whites at Yale, at Starbucks, Walmart, and in other social spaces vividly reveals how white people use law enforcement to exert control over their fellow black Americans.
The use by a white student at Yale to evict a fellow black student from a common area in a dorm is notable for how the police responded to each student. The video shows plainly that the white caller was not questioned about her purpose in calling 911; she was not asked for ID, let alone detained. The police seemed wholly uninterested in her. They seemed oblivious to the possibility that she made a false report or was motivated by bias regarding who belonged in “her” space.
Given her experience of swift police response — and the fact that four officers were dedicated to resolving her complaint — she would probably call again in the future. She is not likely to face repercussions based on “false reporting” statutes, as these have been unevenly applied at best.
American legal history is replete with evidence of white people saying black people committed a crime (what the legal scholar Katheryn Russell-Brown terms “racial hoaxes”) to distract police attention from their own criminal activity, to maintain control of white space, to retaliate against black people for violating unspoken racial codes — or simply just because they can. These cases are quite common: Russell-Brown documented 67 such cases nationally just in the years between 1987 and 1996.
Such cases are so common, in fact, that one state, New Jersey, proposed legislation to apply a criminal penalty to someone who “knowingly provides false information to a law enforcement officer with purpose to implicate another because of race.” (The law never passed.) Many remember the case of Susan Smith, who murdered her two children but sparked a manhunt for “a young black male.” And seared in our nation’s racial collective memory is the Scottsboro case, where nine black boys were sentenced to death for the fabricated rape of two white women.
The Yale student was not, as far as we know, attempting to thwart police from discovering her own wrongdoing. But her enlistment of police was racially strategic, meant to marshal existing stereotypes of blacks to reconfigure her space and dispense with a black person. It fits a societal algorithm that blackness itself is suspect.
Both sides of this ugly dynamic need to be addressed: Black people need to be able to trust that when they enlist the police, they get what whites get — police who show up, take their concerns seriously, and don’t further victimize or retaliate against the citizen.
Perhaps it’s time that white people using police to remove black people from their metaphorical comfort zones get a little less responsiveness, and frivolous requests that make a crime out of black people’s mere presence get challenged more aggressively by law enforcement.
Vesla Mae Weaver is the Bloomberg distinguished associate professor of political science and sociology at Johns Hopkins University. She is the co-author of Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control; Creating a New Racial Order: How Immigration, Multiracialism, Genomics; and The Young Can Remake Race in America.
First Person is Vox’s home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at [email protected].
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